Chapture 10: At the Bottom of the Deep Clear Sea
When he opened his eyes, it took him several minutes of blinking before the blurriness cleared, and even after, he barely recognized Soreto. Her face was streaked with blood, her eyes and nose puffy and swollen.
She looked relieved. "How many fingers am I holding up?"
"Some of them," he answered.
He was sitting in a chair. He leaned forward to stand, but a wave of pain and dizziness seized him, and he closed his eyes again. His head felt
he put up a hand to feel the back of his head, but Soreto caught his wrist.
"I found it." Hasmodai heard the sound of feet sloshing through water and Princess Tina appeared, holding an aid kit. Hasmodai could hear Bell sobbing from the other end of the cockpit.
"Is this all?" Soreto stared into the kit. She shook her head. "This isn't going to be much help. Hold still, Hasmodai, I'll do what I can, but I'm afraid it will just be surface healing."
"How bad is it?" Hasmodai asked as Soreto pulled out a small medical scanner, activated the packet of biogel and started gently spreading it over the back of his head.
"You have a minor skull fracture," she said. "And a concussion, but no serious brain damage. Yet, anyway. You hit that viewport pretty hard."
Hasmodai suddenly remembered the last few minutes of their journey. He had frozen at the controls. Soreto had taken over. She must not have had time to strap herself in, either, which explained the face.
He had let them down when they needed him most. Hasmodai, always the man of action. Dumas might say it again if he was alive to do so.
"This isn't going to do much for you but heal the skin and stop the bleeding," said Soreto. "How are you feeling? Does your neck hurt at all? Can you turn your head?"
"A little." He turned his head. "Ouch."
"What's the square root of two thousand, two hundred and nine?"
"Can you move your toes?"
"Any blurriness or double vision?"
"N..not so much any more."
Hasmodai opened his mouth to speak, saw it, sucked in a deep breath, and answered.
The others looked at him, then turned to gaze out the viewport where he was staring.
Now that the ship was still, its lights seemed to illuminate the entire sea, sending an intense beam that penetrated the ice field and made the floes glow softly. He might never have seen it, thinking the distant object simply a more symmetrical iceberg than most, but then, he had grown up with the knowledge, the stories, the mystery of it
in his first childhood.
"Oh!" Tina saw it, too, then, pushing forward to stare out the viewport, her hands on the cold screen.
And finally, Soreto said, "The Atalanta," in a hushed tone.
"What?" Belled demanded, sniffling. "What are you looking at?"
Hasmodai hesitated, wondering whether it was time Ian's poor, clueless sister was told what was going on around her. Soreto spoke.
lost ship. Vanished hundreds of years ago without a trace." That had been in Greecian time, of course. The Atalanta must have been here for thousands of Earth years. Softly semi-translucent and blue-white, it blended with the icebergs, the stalactites of its antiquated sensor cluster dangling from the tapered end of a shape that gently widened, broadened, and finally became one with the ice sheet covering the oceantop. How enormous was it?
"You're nuts!" Belle sobbed. "There's nothing there! We should be looking for Ian!"
"She's right," Soreto said, turning away from the viewport. "Tina, start the escape pod engine. Hasmodai, will you be all right, here? At the rate the cold water will be draining the energy packs, those suits won't keep them alive for"
"I'm fine. Go!"
"I'm coming, too!" Belle announced, finally unsnapping her restraint harness.
"You're not. The pod is made for two, and we'll need any extra space for survivors." Soreto was working quickly at the computer, checking the pod's systems and condition. "You stay here and look after Hasmodai."
"Why me?" Belle whined. "MY BROTHER is out there!"
"Tina's brother is out there, too." Soreto finished her check and moved to the pod entry hatch. "You stay because you're use--
because you're youngest."
"I'm not THAT much younger than you are."
Soreto stopped for just an instant, long enough to stare firmly into Belle's eyes. "Yes," she said. "You are." Then she swung into the pod, the hatch closed, and the emergency craft burst away from the ship in a flurry of bubbles.
Belle watched, wringing her hands, until the lights of the pod had vanished among the icebergs. Then she turned to him.
"Come on, Teo. We'll go search in the other pod."
"What? No. Soreto said to stay here."
"Are you always a good little boy? Do you always do what 'Soreto' tells you to?"
"Pretty much," Hasmodai confirmed.
Belle bit her lip and stood fuming for half a minute. Then she stomped her foot, making the cold water spatter. "You're USELESS!" She ran to the other escape hatch.
"Belle, no, wait" He rose to his feet, but at the sudden movement another wave of sickening dizziness swept over him, and a stabbing pain shot through his neck and back. Before he had recovered, Belle was through the hatch and had sealed it after her.
Staggering through the bilge, Hasmodai could only hope Belle was unable to figure out how the pod worked before he got to the hatch controls. It was a vain hopewithin seconds, the pod burst away, heading in the opposite direction from Soreto, and vanished from the viewport. Hasmodai leaned against the wall, exhausted, then returned to sink into the chair once again.
He WAS useless.
Hasmodai, the man of action.
The ship was silent now, the only sound the trickle of water from a cracked flange in the escape pod hatch. Hasmodai sat silent and unmoving in the emptiness.
He didn't notice the level of the water rising until it reached the tops of his boots.
Pollux was about to slip past the open door of Doctor Mellert's office when her intercom buzzed, causing her to turn away from her desk and hit the button. "Yes?"
"It's Walfang," a tinny voice crackled from the speaker. "Thought you'd want to know, an unauthorized air vehicle of unidentified origin just attempted a flyover of section one, unit Alpha. A barrage of standard missiles failed to stop it, but one of the experimental Weavers knocked it out of the sky, and two more demolished it below the surface."
"Castor will be pleased," Mellert said. "He wondered how accurate they'd be underwater."
"We have some footage from the first Weaver's online camera," Walfang continued. "You may want to see it."
"Right. Upload it to me. Section one is too close for comfort."
Pollux peered into the doorway again. Doctor Mellert was watching a video on her computer. A shaky, dark, rapidy enlarging image, replayed over and over. He pulled away as she turned back to the intercom.
"Someone in your department has digital animation skills and a sense of humor, Walfang," she said. "I hope it isn't you."
"I assure you, that's what the missile recorded."
Doctor Mellert snorted.
After a few moments of silence, Walfang said, "At any rate, I respectfully request permission to put the station on high alert."
"Of course, Walfang. Lock us down. Only try not to interfere too much with the authorized cargo shipments, will you? We're on a tight schedule."
Pollux didn't hesitate any longer. If they were going to high alert status, this might be his only chance to get outside. He darted past as Mellert added, "And send out the drones. I want any wreckage you can salvage from that
thing. Including bodies."
There was no up, no down, nothing but the unending cold and the churning maelstrom of bubbles, fire and shrapnel around him. Then he felt a squeeze at his shoulders, and there was suddenly an up again, and the flotation packs in his body suit were pulling him that way.
Thoma had been born by the sea and was well schooled in the ways of water. He had instinctively held his breath from the moment the wave had torn through the cargo space. Even so, he was nearly forced to let go of his lungful of stale, depleted air before he reached the surface. The body suit had kept him mostly dry and warm, but the cold water was like a thousand knives on the bare skin of his head and hands.
He surfaced near a large black tear-shaped structure like a buoy. A catwalk ran around its circumference just above the level of the waves, and Seth struggled, his numb hands fumbling to grasp, before finally managing to pull himself up onto the ledge. Heat radiated from the thing and Seth gratefully pressed himself against it, the numbness beginning to fade already from his cold-burning skin.
Behind him he heard splashing and a choking gasp. He turned to see a hand flailing from the ocean's surface, and he seized it and pulled. Mel emerged from the depths, surprisingly heavy, and Seth realized that she still had her tool bag, now weighed down with water, its shoulder strap twisted around her neck. If not for the flotation packs in her bodysuit, it would have dragged her to the ocean floor.
When Seth had untangled the strap from her neck, and she had coughed up a considerable amount of seawater, he helped her to her feet, leaning with her against the warm wall of the buoy.
After a moment, Mel turned around to place her back to the wall, staring around them. Seth followed her gaze.
All around them, the dark, undulating ocean stretched to the horizon. There was nothing, nothing but ice and water and stars as far as the eye could see. They were
Seth forced a confident note into his voice. "Don't worry. They'll be fine, and they're going to find us soon. And if they don't, I'm sure someone else will."
"Actually," Mel said, her voice still hoarse from coughing up cold seawater, "I was just thinking how pleasant it is to be out in the fresh air again."
Seth wished he felt some similar comfort. Seth had been raised in the palace court and thoroughly civilized and educated, Thoma had run wild among the islands, but both of them had been children of warm climates. He had no idea what to do with this air that was relentlessly, mercilessly trying to turn his skin into frozen raw meat, or the ice that had instantly formed on his wet hair and eyebrows.
As they huddled there, another form emerged from the water, further away. Seth knew he ought to be ashamed of the feeling of disappointment that filled him, but there was only one person who wore a white body suit on the ship, and Dumas was lowest on the list of people Seth was desperately hoping had survived.
As he was trying to build up the courage to jump back into the freezing tide and help the newcomer swim to them, Dumas shot up out of the surf and, a hand on his energy pack, levitated over the waves to land beside them.
"Huh," Seth said. "Now, why didn't I think of doing that?"
The door was cold as death. Pollux put his hand against it and felt the chill soak into him. He turned the knob and opened the door into night.
The ice of Sei Station Island glowed white under the halogen lamps. Outside the ring of light lay darkness. Outside the darkness lay the sea. What lay beyond the sea, Pollux would learn. Death was an adventure, an investigation, a discovery.
Pollux stepped away from Sei Station, closing the door behind him, and moved into the light.
A hand seized his shoulder, and he gasped. One of the security guards had him. "Where are you headed?" the man growled. His snow mask hid his features, making him no more than another of the machines that littered the island.
Pollux twisted like a hooked fish, but the man dragged him back inside the door. He pushed back the snow mask to reveal a hard, craggy face and bristling moustache.
"You," the man said accusingly. "You called Delvan Winter, didn't you? In the middle of the night? You asked for help."
Pollux stared in horror. Nobody knew about that, nobody but Castor, and surely Castor would not have betrayed him?
"Winter sent me," the guard said. "The name's Cooks. And I'm here to help you."
Soreto steered the pod around one of the many icebergs cluttering the area. She noticed a sharply fractured notch in one of them, and wondered if it had been one of the ones she hit during the escape. It might be a clue that they were nearing the right place.
The pod was more maneuverable and quicker than the crippled ship had been, and it had better visibility, being little more than a transparent bubble with a frame and engine. Since the scanning system in the pod was rudimentary at best, the wide field of vision was welcome, however exposed and vulnerable it made her feel. They had few search tools apart from actual vision and intuition, and so far neither had provided results. They were randomly ranging through a maze of ice that changed with every variation of wind and current. Any survivors would be depending on their energy packs to keep them warm and alive, and every minute that passed drained those packs further. When the energy was drained, the body suits only provided minor insulation, nowhere near enough to fend off the Antarctic ocean's chill.
"There's something ahead," Tina said, and Soreto enhanced the scanner image.
"It's one of the climate regulators," Soreto said. "If we were too near that, it may have been why we were attacked." Hopefully she scanned the surface further, but there was no floating rubbleor, more importantly, bodiesto be seen. And since there were probably defenses to detect invaders underwater as well as in the air, Soreto let the pod sink to just above the ocean floor.
The rocky bottom was scored and gouged by the movements of the icebergs. Soreto's eyes were frequently caught by a flash of bright color or movement in the pod's floodlights, to realize a moment later that it was only a sea star, ice jelly, or another of the creatures that had somehow adapted to live in this impossibly cold and cruel sea.
They continued the search, crossing and re-crossing the area where the destruction must have taken place, long after any hope must be given up that the energy packs would still be sustaining life. They found not the smallest piece of wreckage. It was as if the wreck had never happened.
Suddenly Tina seized Soreto's arm. "There!" she pointed. In the gloom of the night sea, light beams were moving across the ocean floor.
Against all reason, Soreto's heart leaped, and she turned the pod toward the lights.
Drawing closer, she slowed. Whoever was moving the lights showed no reaction to their approach. Not whoever, she suddenly realized. Whatever. At first she thought the things were some strange, giant crustacean of which she had never heard. Then, for another brief moment of excitement, she thought they might be the Homonculoid robots, Bubble and Squeak.
But these machines were different. The bodies were dark, long and sleek with squared corners, like floating coffins. A mass of limbs and sensors dangled from beneath them, as well as the adjustable floodlights that were now raking the ocean floor. Two or three of the things were clustered together over an angular shape, like crabs picking over the carcass of a dead fish. They rose, straining to lift the object together, and Soreto cried out as she recognized it.
It was one of the sensor panels that had been stored in the cargo space.
Soreto accelerated toward the surface, but there was nothing floating above the wreckage. "Tina, can you get a reading on the current?" she asked. "We may be able to calculate where"
"Soreto?" said Tina. Soreto looked, saw Tina was looking backward, and twisted around. Behind the pod were three of the coffin-shaped robots. She frowned and changed course.
The things turned to follow.
"Get that current reading," she ordered Tina. "Quickly!"
As soon as Soreto had the information, she turned to follow the current. Their pursuers seemed to be gaining on them, so Soreto increased the speed as Tina scanned for floating objects. There was nothing but ice.
Then they came in range of the climate regulator again, and Soreto dove, slipping into the ice field once more.
Darting and weaving between the icebergs, Soreto managed to put a little space between them and their pursuers, but she knew she could not keep it up. The pod was small and fragile, and one miscalculation might spell the end. Still, they might buy enough time to get back to the
With a shout of anger, Soreto changed course.
"What?" Tina asked.
"I almost led them back to the ship. What am I thinking?" Soreto dove to the floor again. Only the largest icebergs stretched to this depth, and she was able to bring the pod to full speed. The following machines stayed on their trail, slowing drawing nearer. A light flared on the sensor panel.
"They've fired at us!" Tina cried.
Once more Soreto ascended to dodge around the icebergs. The missile impacted on the ice, sending shards shooting through the water in all directions. As the pod neared the continent, though, the icebergs were becoming fewer, and the surface was frozen, leaving them racing through an endless cathedral of ice. There were still projections and crevices, and Soreto dodged and wove her way through them as skillfully as she could. Still, the machines gained.
There was another flash. Another missile had been fired.
There was nothing to dodge behind this time.
Desperately, Soreto pulled the pod into a climb, heading though a dark crevice in the ice that got narrower and narrower.
Then it ended altogether.
The pod hit the ice and smashed though it, sailing out of the ocean to hang in the sky. They were airborne.
The engines died, the ice came up to meet them, and a spiderweb of cracks shot through the transparent hull. The pod bounced, skidded and slid to a stop.
"Tina!" Are you all right?" Soreto asked as soon as she had caught her breath.
"I'm fine," Tina said. "Are you--?"
Soreto had no new injuries, though she thought two crashes in one day were probably all she could cope with.
The pod engine would not restart. Even if Soreto had known what was wrong with it, she had nothing to fix it with. Even the tiny medical scanner had been left back aboard the ship with Hasmodai and Belle.
Soreto pulled out her voicelink and tried calling Hasmodai, but no answer came. If her link was working, and they were in range, she supposed Hasmodai's link must have been broken in the wreck of the ship. She tried to link to the ship itself, but again there was no response, and no response came as she called in turn on Agi, Dumas, Mel, Tarlant, and Seth.
All was silence but the moaning wind.
Soreto was one of the handful of people on Earth who knewknew as hard fact, not as an article of faiththat Death was not the end. She had lost count of how many lifetimes she had knowingly returned, and knew that she had probably experienced many forgotten lifetimes before their new knowledge of the zone had let them control and remember their rebirths.
The souls of the lost still existed, and were still connected with hers. Agi, who had led them so long and well, strong, kind and determined. Mel, her dearest friend for so many years. Noble Seth, spirited Tarlant. Dumas
under the layers of arrogance and cruelty he used to hide his own pain, she had sensed his wounded spirit trying so hard to heal and grow.
They would be back, so long as there was a world to come back to. Soreto might meet them again. They might even all be together once more. But never in the way they had been in these many past lifetimes, never again in this lifetime where she had learned to love them all so dearly.
In this lifetime, this now, Soreto would have to go on without them.
She put her face in her hands and wept.